RT Length: 7.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 2532’
I didn’t make it to the trailhead until almost 6am. This was due to my pressing snooze while my coffee brewed and thinking it would only take me 2.5 hours to get there instead of 3. Oh, and GoogleMaps gets you to Crystal Trailhead in Breckenridge, but not the one I was looking for. Luckily it was only a 15 minute fix (and the directions were eerily similar to the real ones, just 2 miles south on the 9 instead of 2 miles on South 9…). If you’re coming from Colorado Springs like me and taking the 24 to the 9, the trailhead is BEFORE you get to Breckenridge (but after the Quandary TH). If you get to Breckenridge you’ve gone too far.
In any event, the road to the lower (Spruce Creek) trailhead is a 2WD dirt road that’s easy to navigate. As soon as you pass the gate and head towards Lower Crystal Lake things get 4WD fast. The road narrows and is scattered with rocks about the size of bowling balls, with a few microwaves thrown in. Most are sharp. It was worse driving up than driving down, and as long as you’re the only vehicle on the 2+ mile road and you have high clearance it’s no big deal. There aren’t many passing areas though, so if you do need to pass someone it’s a long backwards navigation to a pull off site. Luckily, I didn’t see anyone on the drive up or down (or anyone hiking on the trails for that matter).
My truck handled everything just fine, except for the narrow area through the willows: they scratched the sides of my truck (nothing a good wash won’t fix, but it hurts to hear it just the same).
I was on the trail by 6am, but immediately knew something wasn’t right. I got out my map and realized while being at the upper trailhead sounded like a good idea, it actually wasn’t because the trail was a loop that started and ended at the LOWER trailhead. Whoops! At least I could do the hike backwards and start from where I was (Lower Crystal Lake, doing the hike in reverse, with Crystal Peak A first, then Father Dyer, and then Mount Helen).
But this meant I’d need to alter my decent route as well. It was dark so I couldn’t see if the terrain below Mount Helen cliffed out or not, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to alter my route at all. I got out another map (I had 4) and noticed I could backtrack if needed and take the basin between Father Dyer Peak and Mount Helen if I ran short on time (I was on a strict schedule again today: I had to be back at my truck by noon so I could pick my daughter up from school at 3). But I really wanted a visual, so I hiked a bit slowly and allowed the sun to rise.
I’d parked at the shambles of an old cabin near Lower Crystal Lake and hiked northwest on an established trail up the mountainside.
The sun began to rise and I got a better view of what I’d wanted to be my exit route off Mount Helen… nope, that wasn’t happening: I’d be cliffed out if I tried to make a beeline off the mountain for my truck, and hiking all the way back to the Spruce Creek Trailhead would add too much time. OK, plan B: I was going to have to backtrack after summiting Mount Helen. No worries though, because it all looked doable in the time I had.
But then I looked up and noticed an American Flag on the peak above me. Oh yeah! Peak 10 (a Bicentennial). I was going to try for it if I had enough time after summiting the other 3 peaks, but since I was here now and so close (.3 miles, according to Peakbagger) I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. So I changed direction and headed north toward the summit of Peak 10. There was no path, and the terrain was rocky but easy to navigate.
I made it to the summit at 7am
That had been too easy! I turned east and identified the reason I’d planned my hike today: Crystal Peak A (a Centennial).
No way. It had to be harder than this? I got out my map again. Yep, that was it. All I had to do was follow the class 2 ridge down to the saddle and up to the summit.
There was a small false summit, but this peak was also easily navigable, and at times there was a faint trail to follow. Just stick to the ridge and you’ll be fine.
The rocks were beautiful, and a pika posed for me…
I summited at 7:50am.
I hadn’t even been hiking 2 hours yet and I’d already summited two ranked 13ers. Pretty cool! BUT… a little voice in the back of my mind reminded me the hardest part was yet to come: The traverse between Mount Helen and Father Dyer Peak was supposed to be very time consuming, so I’d better get a move on. I turned and looked southeast for Father Dyer Mountain. You can’t see the route to Mount Helen from here.
And looked back on the route I’d taken so far (note this is UPPER Crystal Lake in this picture, Lower Crystal Lake, where I parked, isn’t visible). Also note, there are lakes all over the place in this area! Ever ridge leads to multiple lakes, so make sure you know where you are and which lakes you’re aiming for/avoiding. I counted about 15…
The ridge to Father Dyer is a difficult class 2. I put on my helmet and had at it.
Once again, just stick to the ridge and you’ll be fine. There were a few parts where it helped to go a little left (north) but I mainly stuck to the ridge. I summited at 8:30am
There’s a plaque on the summit commemorating the Methodist Church and Father Dyer
I was feeling pretty good about myself at this point. My turnaround time was 10am. I had an hour and a half to do the traverse. I turned and looked at the route before me and my jaw dropped:
The beginning part of the ridge looked easy, and it was, but soon I encountered more difficult class 3 terrain. It’s been over a month since I’ve done anything class 3 or above, and I was in heaven!!!
The only downside? It was slow going. And yes, stick to the ridge (even when it doesn’t seem right)
I made it past the highest of the spires, started down again and ran into the gully I need to descend to hit the saddle for Mount Helen. I looked at my watch: it was 9:40am, and my turnaround time was 10am. I looked at what was left of the route before me:
There was no way I was going to make it to the summit of Mount Helen in 20 minutes. Could I summit successfully? Yes. In 20 minutes? Nope. Ugh!!! I had a decision to make: continue on until my alarm rings or turn back now. I was at a point where I needed to descend a gully about 200 feet and then continue on up the ridge to Mount Helen, and I knew I could descend the gully no problem, but making up the time on the way out wouldn’t work because I’d parked at the 4WD TH and couldn’t do the loop to exit (I also didn’t have the time to hike down to the 2WD and back up the to the 4WD TH). It seems the added time it took me to summit Peak 10 meant no Mount Helen for me today.
The bad news: I had to turn back and descend the saddle between Father Dyer and Mount Helen. The good news: I got to do the traverse twice, once each way! Woot! This was great! I haven’t done any climbing in a while, and now I had a full day of it, complete with exposure and route finding and, well, good times! I started back towards the saddle
I’d already mapped in my mind the route I’d wanted to take back if I had to descend this way. There are a lot of areas on Mount Helen that cliff out, but if I descended here (near the saddle) I’d be able to descend into the basin and hike out towards Lower Crystal Lake (keeping to the left/north).
This is the route I took
Please note, this route is very steep, full of scree, slippery, and demands a helmet and more time than you think it will. It wasn’t fun, but it was productive
Here’s the route I took down from the ridge
Once I was in the basin I rock-hopped northwest. Here’s what it looked like looking back
The only problem? I was kind of cliffed out. Kind of, but not really.
It took some careful maneuvering down goat trails (NEVER say to yourself: if a goat can do it I can too!) but I eventually made it back down to my truck. Here’s my route:
I made it back at 11:20am, meaning I’d done my mental calculations correctly (turn back time of 20 minutes, etc.)
I was a bit disappointed I wasn’t able to summit Mount Helen, but as I was hiking down the basin towards my truck I thought about how I gained an extra ranked peak today (Peak 10) and how Mount Helen would be a great winter climb (accessible in winter and a great training hike for snowshoes/crampons?). So I considered it a win. Also, I was able to make it home to pick up my daughter from school on time, which is what really counts!
Here’s my route:
And my tracks on a topo map